NEW YORK — Word lovers say a good pun is like a good steak: a rare medium well done. Get it? If you don’t, you’re not alone.
When it comes to puns, not everyone is laughing. Puns — words or
phrases deliberately confused for rhetorical effect — may be an
endangered species, as changes in comedy have writers panning puns.
"Puns worked when most humour was written," said Andrew Smith, a
comedy writer who used to write for Saturday Night Live. "Puns have
gone out of favour because they work for the page, not for the stage."
United by their love of language, however, punsters across the
continent are banding together to protect and promote the pun. They
hope punny websites and competitive pun-offs will trigger a pun
comeback, or, better yet, a pun-back.
Each May, hundreds gather on the lawn of the O. Henry Museum in
Austin, Texas, for a pun-ishing contest in which 32 pun-slingers face
off in a battle for word domination. There are two categories: Punniest
of Show, where contestants perform 90 seconds of freestyle punnery, and
High-lies & Low-puns, a head-to-head battle of wits.
At the 2002 pun-off, immortalized in the documentary Pun-smoke, the
audience was treated to two punsters and their pirate-themed
"Hey, nice earrings, how much did you pay for them?" asked one.
"About a buccaneer!" the other replied.
Groans ensued. "The audience comes back every year because they are
annual retentive," joked the emcee, Gary Hallock. "Sometimes we need to
enroll them in a witless protection program after the event."
Puns treat homonyms as synonyms, allowing punsters to pack two or
more meanings into a single phrase. To wit: How about that Trojan War?
It was Helen earth. The depraved poet? Paid perverse.
Puns, like contraceptives, can be labour-saving devices. The
challenge of punning is to apply the greatest pressure per square
syllable of language.
"You get the thrill of packing more meaning in less space," said
Richard Lederer, author of Get Thee to a Punnery and Anguished English.
Lederer’s nephew once asked for a slogan suggestion for his San Antonio
legal firm, which specializes in divorce cases. "Remember the Alimony!"
Lederer shot back.
The pun, also known as paronomasia, has serious literary pedigree.
Homer’s The Odyssey contains one of the earliest literary puns. In the
epic, Odysseus identifies himself as "Nobody" when he’s captured by a
one-eyed giant. Later, when Odysseus puts out the giant’s eye, the
giant cries for help, yelling, "Nobody is killing me!"
Shakespeare’s plays are riddled with puns, so much so that academics
have written tomes on the subject. There’s even a 372-page dictionary
featuring the playwright’s sexual puns. (Sorry, no examples can be
Famous punsters include Oscar Wilde, whose best-known play, The
Importance of Being Earnest is packed with puns, including its title.
Funnyman Groucho Marx was famous for them ("Time wounds all heels,"
goes one) as was the author Dorothy Parker, who dazzled her fellows at
the Algonquin Round Table with such bon mots as "I’d rather have a
bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy."
For all their cleverness, puns have long been ridiculed. The English
dramatist John Dennis proclaimed more than 300 years ago that the pun
is the "lowest form of wit." Changes in comedy and media haven’t helped.
"Professional comedy writers don’t like the pun because you can’t
perform it," said Smith, the comedy writer. "It will stop the show —
with a groan."
Actually, groaning is considered high praise for a pun. "People moan
and groan," said Norman Gilbert of the International Save the Pun
Foundation. "But I think the bigger the groan, the better the pun!"
As chairman of the bored for the Toronto-based pun group, Gilbert
sifts through about 75 puns submitted by members each day. Although
membership is down since the 1990s, when the group had about 1,000
punsters, Save the Pun now has 300 members and is adding about a dozen
The website pungents.com is one of dozens catering to would-be
pundits. "Our goal is to raise the status of puns," said Pat Tanzola,
28, co-founder of the site. "We’re showing that cool and sexy people
love puns too."
Tanzola and fellow co-founder Rhain Louis, also 28, founded their
website in December 2004 when they realized their shared love for puns
vastly outstripped their love for school. Forsaking graduate study in
zoology (Louis) and urban planning (Tanzola), they opted out of
academia, got day jobs and devoted themselves to puns.
Today, their site is a veritable barrel of pun. There are pun-liners
(eating wheat is a sin: gluteny) and a searchable pun archive. One
entry: Should you age your wine in a wooden coffin? Yes, it’s better to
casket. Use it if you’re in die-er need of a cemetery pun.
The pun gents also have a custom joke service offering puns on
demand. One woman requested a pun on the death of Santa: "He was taken
by Satan’s claws," replied the gents. "In France they’re calling him
Punny or not, word of the pun’s death seems greatly exaggerated. As
the columnist William Safire once wrote: "There’s no more chance of
stamping out paronomasia than there is a likelihood of finding a cure
for the common scold."
‘People moan and groan. But I think the bigger the groan, the better the pun!’
Emily Rauhala is a master’s candidate at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.